Fixed Expenses vs Variable Expenses

By Jamie Cattanach · February 27, 2024 · 9 minute read

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Fixed Expenses vs Variable Expenses

A budget can be a great tool for managing your money and making it work harder for you. But typically a budget involves distinguishing between fixed expenses (those that stay constant, month after month) and variable expenses, which change over time.

Understanding where your money is going in these two ways can be helpful as you work to track and optimize how you earn, spend, and save.

What’s important to know is that each kind of expense can be lowered in many cases, and fixed vs. variable expenses don’t necessarily translate as needs vs. wants.

Here, you can learn more about these two ways you spend money and how to pay less. You will likely find smart tips for how you can budget even better.

Key Points

•   A budget helps manage money by distinguishing between fixed expenses (constant) and variable expenses (fluctuating).

•   Fixed expenses include rent, mortgage, insurance premiums, and gym memberships, while variable expenses include groceries, utilities, dining out, and entertainment.

•   Both fixed and variable expenses can be reduced, but cutting fixed expenses may require bigger life changes.

•   Examples of fixed expenses are mortgage payments, car payments, student loan payments, and subscription fees.

•   Examples of variable expenses are utilities, food, dining out, entertainment, and travel.

What Is a Fixed Expense?

Fixed expenses are those costs that you pay in the same amount each month — items like your rent or mortgage payment, insurance premiums (which can be an often-forgotten budget expense), and your gym membership. With fixed expenses, you know the amounts you will owe ahead of time, and they don’t change (or perhaps only annually).

Fixed expenses tend to make up a large percentage of a monthly budget since housing costs, typically the largest part of a household budget, are generally fixed expenses. This means that fixed expenses present a great opportunity for saving large amounts of money on a recurring basis if you can find ways to reduce their costs. However, cutting costs on fixed expenses may require bigger life changes, like moving to a different apartment — or even a different city, where the cost of living is lower.

Keep in mind, too, that not all fixed expenses are necessities — or big budget line items. For example, an online TV streaming service subscription, which is withdrawn in the same amount every month, is a fixed expense. It’s also a want as opposed to a need. Subscription services can seem affordable until they start accumulating and perhaps become unaffordable.

Examples of Fixed Expenses

Here are some examples of fixed expenses:

•   Mortgage payments or rent

•   Car payments

•   Student loan payments

•   Membership and subscription fees

•   Insurance premiums

•   Childcare or tuition payments

•   Internet or mobile phone fees

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What Is a Variable Expense?

Variable expenses, on the other hand, are those whose amounts can vary each month, depending on factors like your personal choices and behaviors as well as external circumstances like the weather.

For example, in areas with cold winters, electricity or gas bills are likely to increase during the winter months because it takes more energy to keep a house comfortably warm. Grocery costs are also variable expenses since the amount you spend on groceries can vary considerably depending on what kind of items you purchase and how much you eat.

You’ll notice, though, that both of these examples of variable costs are still necessary expenses — basic utility costs and food. The amount of money you spend on other nonessential line items, like fashion or restaurant meals, is also a variable expense.

In either case, variable simply means that it’s an expense that fluctuates on a month-to-month basis, as opposed to a fixed-cost bill you expect to see in the same amount each month.

Examples of Variable Expenses

Here are specifics of what can constitute a variable expense:

•   Utilities

•   Food

•   Dining out

•   Entertainment

•   Personal care

•   Travel

•   Medical care

•   Gas

•   Property and car maintenance

•   Gifts

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Fixed vs Variable Expenses

To review the difference between variable vs. fixed expenses:

•   Fixed expenses are those that cost the same amount each month, like rent or mortgage payments, insurance premiums, and subscription services.

•   Variable expenses are those that fluctuate on a month-to-month basis, like groceries, utilities, restaurant meals, and movie tickets.

•   Both fixed and variable utilities can be either wants or needs — you can have fixed expense wants, like a gym membership, and variable expense needs, like groceries.

When budgeting, whether you are calculating expenses for one person or a family, it’s possible to make cuts on both fixed and variable expenses.

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Ways to Save on Fixed Expenses

Just because an expense is fixed doesn’t mean it can’t be downsized. Consider these possibilities.

Review Where Your Money Is Going

Take a look at your fixed expenses with a critical eye. Did your landlord raise your rent a significant sum? It might be time to look for more affordable options or get a roommate.

Has the number of subscription services you pay for crept up over time? You might save on streaming services by dropping a platform or two.

Refinance Your Loans

Interest rates rise and fall. If they are dropping, you might be able to save money by refinancing your loans, such as your mortgage. Check rates, and see if any offers are available that would reduce your monthly spend.

One option can be to get a lower payment over a longer period. You will likely pay more interest over the life of the loan, but it could help you out if you are living paycheck to paycheck right now.

Consolidate Your Debt

If you have a significant amount of high-interest debt, such as credit card debt, you might consider paying it off with a personal loan that offers a lower interest rate. This could save you money in interest and help lower your fixed expenses.

Bundle Your Insurance

Many insurance companies offer a lower premium if you sign up for both automotive and homeowners insurance with them. Check available offers to potentially reduce your costs.

Ways to Save on Variable Expenses

As you delve into variable vs. fixed expenses, here are some possible ways to minimize the ones that vary.

Scrutinize How You Spend

When you track your spending, you may find ways to cut back. For instance, you could look for ways to do your grocery shopping on a budget by planning meals in advance and shopping with a list. You might be able to challenge yourself to go for one month without, say, takeout food and the next without movies and then put the savings towards paying down debt.

Hit “Pause” on Impulse Purchases

If you feel the urge to buy something that isn’t in your spending plan, try the 30-day rule. Mark down the item and where you saw it and the price in your calendar for 30 days in the future. When that date arrives, if you still feel you must have it, you can find a way to buy it. But there is a very good chance that sense of urgency will have passed.

Try Different Budget Methods

If you find you need more help reining in your variable expenses, you might benefit from trying different budgeting tactics. There is the popular 50/30/20 budget rule, which says to allocate 50% of your take-home pay to needs, 30% to wants, and 20% to savings.

Other people prefer the envelope budget method or using a line-item budget to dig into where their money is going. You might also benefit from apps and digital tools to help you track where your money is going. Many banks offer these to their customers.

Check in With Your Money Regularly

The exact cadence is up to you, but it can be helpful to review your money on a regular basis. Some people like to check in on their account balances a few times a week; others prefer to review their accounts in-depth monthly. Find a system that works for you so you can see if your spending is on-target or going overboard.

Benefits of Saving Money on Fixed Expenses

If you’re trying to find ways to stash some cash, finding places in your budget to make cuts is a big key. And while you can make cuts on both fixed and variable expenses, lowering your fixed expenses can pack a hefty punch, since these tend to be big line items — and since the savings automatically replicate themselves each month when that bill comes due again.

Think about it this way: if you quit your morning latte habit (a variable expense), you might save a grand total of $150 over the course of a month — not too shabby, considering it’s just coffee. Even small savings can add up over time when they’re consistent and effort-free — it’s like automatic savings.

But if you recruit a roommate or move to a less trendy neighborhood, you might slash your rent (a fixed expense) in half. Those are big savings, and savings you don’t have to think about once you’ve made the adjustment: They just rack up each month. The savings you reap can help you pay down debt or save more, which can help you build wealth.

Saving Money on Variable Expenses

Of course, as valuable as it is to make cuts to fixed expenses, saving money on variable expenses is still useful — and depending on your habits, it could be fairly easy to make significant slashes.

As mentioned above, by adjusting your grocery shopping behaviors and aiming at fresh, bulk ingredients over-packaged convenience foods, you might decrease your monthly food bill. You could even get really serious and spend a few hours each weekend scoping out the weekly flyer for sales.

If you have a spendy habit like eating out regularly or shopping for clothes frequently, it can also be possible to find places to make cuts in your variable expenses. You can also find frugal alternatives for your favorite spendy activities, whether that means DIYing your biweekly manicure to learning to whip up that gourmet pizza at home. (Or maybe you’ll find a way to save enough on fixed expenses that you won’t have to worry as much about these habits.)

Saving and Budgeting With SoFi

Fixed expenses are those costs that are in the same amount each month, whereas variable expenses can vary. Both can be trimmed if you’re trying to save money in your budget, but cutting from fixed expenses can yield bigger savings for less ongoing effort.

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What are examples of variable expenses?

Variable expenses are changeable costs that include such items as groceries, utilities, entertainment, dining out, and credit card debt. They differ month by month.

What are examples of fixed expenses?

Fixed expenses are constant month after month. These can include such things as rent, car payments, student loan payments, and subscription services.

Are utilities fixed or variable?

Utilities may be a need vs. a want in life, but they often vary. For instance, if you live in a cold climate, your heating bill will rise in the winter. Or you might run the dishwasher more over the holiday season, increasing your bill.

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